Monday, August 28, 2023

Exploring Corsica

Trip date: September 2022

The Mediterranean island of Corsica, or Corse as it is called by its country of France, is quite an unique place to visit!

Corsica is thought to be settled in about 560 BCE during the Mesolithic period. Corsicans are pretty fiercely Corsican first, French a distant 2nd! The island birthplace of Napoleon was purchased from the Genoese in 1767 and many locals still would like to see independance. They speak Corsu as well as French (and many speak Italian). They have their own very distinctive flag with an image of a (supposedly) decapitated Moor head on it, representing defeating the Moors in ancient wars. 

Corsica is also incredibly beautiful and is known for its lush mountains, pristine beaches, and postcard-worthy vistas. Forest and I flew in from Marseille and met up with our friend Nicola in the capital city of Ajaccio. We had a 3-bedroom Airbnb with some seriously fantastic views of the sea. 

We spent a lot of time on our terrace, eating Corsican cheeses and charcuterie, drinking Corsican wines, and watching the big ferries come in and out of the port. It was very relaxing and the scenery was just fantastic!

We also did a wonderful hike at Pointe de la Parata which has one of the 90 Genoese towers built in 1550 to defend the Corsican coasts against invaders. It's a bit of a steep and rocky climb to the top where the tower is but the views of the Îles Sanguinaires were a great reward!

The 2 ½ mile loop skirts around the point and has beautiful views from all sides. It's an easy hike, except for the tower!

We then drove down to Marinella beach and had a very fun lunch at KOS. The location absolutely can not be beat! It's stunning, staff was good fun, and all of our food was quite tasty. If you are around this area I'd definitely plant yourself here for a glass or two of rosé!

After a couple of days in Ajaccio, we set off for Bonifacio on the very south tip of the island. It's a 2 ½ drive so we had plenty of time for a few stops along the way. 

The first was the seaside town of Propriano; the drive through the mountains was absolutely beautiful! 
Once in town we did a short hike along the coast and down to the beach. The color of the ocean was stunning and the wind was crazy strong!
We had a quick, and not very good, lunch in a random cafe and then continued our drive to the medieval town of Sartène. I think our Airbnb host had recommended a stop here, it's a super cute tiny town built into the hillside. 

We walked around a bit and did some shopping for some local cheese and charcuterie for apero hour.

The rest of the drive to Bonifacio was just stunning! It was all mountains, cliffs, and sea!

Unfortunately that is where the day turned a bit poor. We had a hell of a time finding our Airbnb and when we finally did it was NOTHING like what we thought we had rented. It had been listed as a bungalow and apparently that means trailer home in French. Not only was it an absolute dump but the 3 rooms were so tiny I could barely walk into my room! And we were in the middle of nowhere! Luckily we had a lot of snacks and salad makings for dinner and of course a good traveling bar!
Nicola called the hosts and explained that this would not work for us, I went online and booked us a hotel in Bonifacio proper, the next day we checked out of our trailer home and checked into Hôtel A Madonetta (which was a great location and fine room but pretty surly service).

Bonifacio is a tiny and beautiful town that sits right on the Mediterranean with Sardinia just an hour away by ferry. It was super windy so we scrapped plans for lunch in Italy and decided to take the tourist train up to the citadel. Sounds very unlike me, but that is one steep climb to the top and none of us had slept well in the trailer!! The little train gave us great views of the yachts in the harbour and also the commercial boats in the port before dropping us off in the upper town, the oldest on the island.

We made our way through the tiny pedestrian only streets and found the King of Aragon's Staircase, steps build directly into the rock wall, for some more amazing views.
Because of the wind, it wasn't advisable to do the entire walk, so we decided to grab lunch at U Castille. What a great meal we had! We were seated in an old room with a stone walls and vaulted ceilings. The restaurant is known for their traditional cuisine so I had their fish soup, which was served with rouille (similarly to Marseille's bouillabaisse) but this soup was very smooth. 

I also had the wild boar stew and raspberry souffle ice cream. Yum! Highly recommend a stop here if you are in town.

We wandered around some more after lunch, exploring the little ally's and doing some shopping along the way. It's a super cute medieval town!
Nic decided to head back to the hotel for a bit so Forest and I found a little café overlooking the incredible limestone cliffs and watched them change colors in the light while having some rosé. We walked back down to the lower town at sunset and had a casual pizza dinner at one of the many restaurants that line the port.

The next day Forest and I decided to hike up to the cliffs; Nic wasn't feeling well so stayed back at the hotel. This time there was no tourist train! We walked through town, up the steep streets to the citadel and then headed left over to the trail that runs along the cliffs we had been viewing the day before. Now we could see the walled city that is perched up high.
We could also see Sardinia out in the distance. It was interesting to get closer to the limestone, it's so unique looking, and to peer down at the little coves that line the shore. There were others on the trail but it wasn't crowded at all and it took us about 1 ½ hours round trip from the port. It was really a beautiful hike! 

We grabbed some very good burgers back in town for lunch and then met up with Nicola. Forest drove us to the local Figari airport to pick up a rental car, as Nic and I had our flight out of Ajaccio the next morning.  We had a tiny Fiat which made the 2 ½ drive on the twisty roads a little nerve wracking. It also decided to dump rain for a while!

Back in Ajaccio, we had rooms at the Holiday Inn which was super close to Bonaparte airport. Nic and I went grocery shopping for some things to bring home and then had drinks and dinner on the hotel property. The rooms were very nice for a Holiday Inn!

At 7:30am the next day we headed to the airport to return the car, but really we could have gone an hour later as it took no time at all and there isn't much of anything to do at the airport except shop for local specialities which we had already done at the grocery store.

By the way, if you visit Corsica don't pass on the local Canistrelli cookies! You can find them everywhere, in both sweet and savory varieties. They are similar to a biscotti and are fabulous!

We were on Easy Jet for the quick 1 hour 50 minute flight to CDG. I said goodbye to Nicola, collected my bag, rechecked in with Air Canada for my flight home, and was in the Maple Leaf Lounge just 45 minutes after landing! 

I had booked Business Class from CDG to Montreal with points and my pod was quite nice and comfortable. Air Canada was still following COVID guidelines so masks were still mandatory which was a bit strange. They also didn't pass out any toiletry bag which is very typical on international flights. The food was great, including my foie gras! And I had a nice snooze on the 7 ½ flight to Canada. 

In YUL it took quite a while to get through customs and security; I was very glad to have Global Entry to speed things up a bit. The Maple Leaf Lounge here had smoked meat sandwiches which was very Montrealian! 

Then I was on my way home, 5 ½ hours to Seattle in Business Class on a 737, so no lay flat but still a very pleasant flight.

Corsica is absolutely beautiful so if you get a chance to go, do it! The roads are very twisty and it takes longer than you think to get around so take that into consideration when deciding where to stay. 

All Corsica photos here.

Other posts from this trip:

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

36 Hours in Marseille

 Trip date: September 2022

After a week in Paris, I headed south with my friends Forest and Cliodhna, for a little weekend in Marseille. Even though we had a 7:30 am train ( SO EARLY!) out of Gare du Lyon, I was excited to return to Marseille; my last visit had been in 2010! 

It's a very pretty 3 hour train trip down to the oldest city in France, and the weather was lovely. We brought mimosa makings on board and had a little breakfast picnic. Once we arrived at the main station it was an easy walk to our Airbnb in the Opera neighborhood, which is right near the old port. It was only 11am but we were able to leave our bags at the key pick up place until check in.

You don't go to Marseille without eating bouillabaisse and we were headed to the 70+ year old family restaurant Chez Fonfon to have ours for lunch. Fonfon is in the tiny port of Vallon des Auffes which is just a short Uber ride away. We somehow scored a very posh Cadillac SUV Uber that was decked out with party lights and leather pillows on the seats! Fancy! 

Bouillabaisse is serious business in these parts and there are traditions that are followed religiously by local chefs. Typically the dish must contain 4 species of fish, one must be the bony rockfish rascasse, and all fish must come from the Mediterranean Sea and caught that day. 

First, you are served a bowl of the broth, heavily flavored with saffron, which you eat with rouille, a spicy aioli which you spread on toasted bread and float on the bouillabaisse. Then they will bring you your cooked fish and more broth so you can have it all together. It's not the prettiest dish but oh my it is delicious!! 

After lunch, we walked around a bit and had some wine at a little bar overlooking the Mediterranean, watching the swimmers and sunbathers on the rocks. It was a lovely afternoon!

We headed back to check into our Airbnb and grab our luggage. The space was very pretty and the location was just perfect. We walked that evening to the speakeasy Carry Nation for cocktails.
This spot was a big hit with all of us. Sometimes speakeasies can be quite pretentious but the staff was wonderful and the drinks were great. Also the menu had a Ramos Gin Fizz on it, and if you put that on your menu I am 100% ordering it without apology.
It was a stunner!!

From here we headed to Copper Bay; a favorite of mine in Paris so I was very happy to check out their Marseille location. No surprise that the cocktails were fab!
The next morning we walked along the old port; the area has been spruced up quite a bit since my last visit, there's now a mirrored roof over the fish and flower vendors, lending an arty vibe. 

On the other side of the port there are lots of little kiosks selling local products and souvenirs. It's all very cute and bustling. And right across the street was our lunch destination, La Caravelle

Inside the adorable old bistro, we scored a window table with incredible views of the cathedral across the harbor. Pastis was ordered, and rosé, and we had an absolutely wonderful lunch. My salad of melons, feta, jambon, and olives was crazy good and only €15!

After lunch we continued our walk all the way to the end of the port to the Saint John Fort and the MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée). Walking on the ramparts around the fort give you amazing views of the city in all directions. 

Once you've made your way around you'll see the MuCEM, it's an absolutely stunning building! We didn't go inside but we walked across the (high and slightly scary) bridge and had a drink on their terrace. 

This is a great walk! Highly recommend!

From here we walked back through the port area of town and made our way to the Intercontinental/ Hotel Dieu. It's a gorgeous grand old hotel and Capian Bar turns out very delicious martinis. 

We chose to have ours on the terrace with another great view of the cathedral. It's really a beautiful spot for a drink.

The entire weekend had been very sunny and warm but as we walked back to our Airbnb the skies turned dark and the wind kicked up. It was pretty dramatic!

That evening we had a very good dinner at Ourea, a charming neighborhood restaurant filled with locals. 5 courses for €52! 
As we were finishing dinner a MASSIVE rainstorm happened! The streets started flooding and Forest and I remembered a similar night in New Orleans years ago! Even though our apartment was just blocks away, there was no way we were braving that in our dresses and heels! Thanks Uber! Our walking in Marseille was officially over.

We had a few nightcaps back at ours and said our goodbyes to Cliodhna as Forest and I had a 9am flight to Corsica the next morning and would be out the door quite early.

I had been wanting to go back to Marseille for years, in fact Forest and I originally had a trip scheduled in May of 2020... we know how that went. It was so good to be back and so fun to be with these two lovely ladies! 

All Marseille photos here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

(Michelin) Stars in Paris

Trip date: September 2022

There are just nine Michelin 3-starred restaurants in Paris, and now I've been to three of them. 

Since 1986 Arpège has been the darling of Paris. Chef Alain Passard earned his 3rd Michelin star in 1996 and has had it ever since. In 2001 the restaurant famously became vegetarian; I knew I would never choose to spend that kind of money on a vegetarian only meal so I figured I would never go. I mean I like vegetables but not that much!

In 2014 meat returned to the menu, but the focus is still on vegetables. I can get behind that! 

Passard has his own gardens, just outside of Paris, that supply Arpège with all of its vegetables. Everything is picked that morning and delivered to the kitchen's waiting chefs. If you are a local you can even have a basket of vegetables from the same gardens delivered to your home! You can also buy dishes with his vegetable paintings on them which are used in the restaurant. 

Forest, Nicky, and I had reservations for lunch on my last day in Paris. None of us had been and we were all excited! Immediately upon entering I noticed the wall coverings; scenes of gardens and vegetables were painted on the white fabric walls with small accents of embroidery (I think this was done by Maison Lesage who is a revered embroidery house now owned by Chanel.)

Our table was in the main dining room (there is also a room downstairs); the space was airy and done in creams and light wood, the chairs with green caning. I liked it, but I know not everyone is in agreement on the decor. 

While we waited for Nicky to arrive, we had multiple staff come to our table and ask to take one of our handbag stools for another table. We explained each time that our friend would need it. It was unprofessional and it definitely rubbed my friends the wrong way. Not the best start to lunch.

We all had a glass of the house rosé Champagne (there was no cart brought about, just a question on if we would like one) and then all ordered the set menu "Le déjeuner des jardiniers" which is €185 per person. The restaurant oddly doesn't commit to how many courses you will be served, but we had around 12 courses by the end. 

You can also supplement your tasting menu with additional courses from the menu. I really wanted to try their Sole Meuniere but it was only served as a whole dish for the table and the ladies weren't interested. Our waiter said he'd see what he could do...

The meal started with a little plate of vegetables served plain and I will just say we all kind of rolled our eyes. But as we tasted the tomatoes, we each exclaimed that it was the most "tomatoey" flavor we'd ever tasted!

One of the dishes Arpège is known for is the "chaud froid d’oeuf aux 4 épices, sirop d’érable" or the Passard egg. A warm, perfectly soft boiled egg yolk is added to the shell with cold creme fraiche, chives, and a touch of maple syrup. It was absolutely delicious. 

All the dishes we had were visually beautiful; there were lots of colors and textures on each plate. And the flavors really did stand out! This dish of "sushi" almost had me liking beets...
But after the 2nd beet dish, a "tartare", I mentioned to the server that I hoped there would be no more beets (I'm not a fan for those of you who don't know me)

The only dish that wasn't very pretty surprised us in how delicious it was. A dish of gratineed onion was warm, had crispy bits amongst the soft vegetable, and had a very meaty taste to it. 

Unfortunately, there was a huge service misstep with this dish. One of the ladies was in the restroom when the plates were delivered to the table, so they served two of the three. Not only have I never been at a Michelin starred restaurant that served plates when a diner was away from the table, but in this case our friend returned from the bathroom to find us both eating which is quite rude. Service then brought hers out. It was shocking really. 

That misstep was followed by the kitchen bringing out a ½ order of the sole for me. A ½ order is not really available so this was a really nice touch. The fish with tiny clams and buttery potatoes in a Vin Jaune sauce was incredible; truly one of the best things I've ever eaten. 

I wanted to give the ladies a taste of the fish but they both said that it would be in bad taste to share since the kitchen had gone out of their way to provide a ½ order. The dish wasn't free, in fact it was a €110 supplement so I should be able to do whatever I wanted with it! But I kept the fish to myself as they suggested. 

We were served two desserts, the first was simple dish of the best strawberries in an infusion of sorts and adorned with pretty little flower petals. The second was another Arpège classic, the Apple Tart Rose.

Beautiful, but I have to say that the flavor was fine and I thought the texture could be better. 

As Arpège doesn't offer wine pairings we had ordered a lovely Alsatian Riesling and then a very interesting Beaujolais Blanc. With dessert, a small digestif cart was brought over which had a very special bottle of Chartreuse Reine des Liqueurs and a ratafia fortified wine made by Champagne house Adrien Renoir.

Another surprise for me was no cheese course! I'd read that it was quite a nice trolly (I guess back in the day) and was looking forward to it. The mignardises were not the traditional macarons baked in interesting flavors that I had heard about, but instead, puff pastry bites filled with baked fruits. Fine but not what I was expecting, and honestly I like to take those home for breakfast the next day!

Our main server, Passard's son Louis, was a little overly familiar with us. He was quite chatty which is pretty much a no-no at a restaurant of this type. But he did take some great photos of us!

We were the last to leave at 4:30, so a leisurely 3 ½ hour lunch was had. I enjoyed the meal, especially as I was with great friends, but we did spend a good amount of time later, over glasses of champagne, discussing the pretty blatant flaws that really didn't seem fitting of a 3-star. 

Have you been to Arpège? If so what was your experience? 

All Paris photos here.

Other posts from this trip:

Paris For Free

Paris by the Numbers 

36 Hours in Marseille

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